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George Vass and Orchestra Nova began the concert with Benjamin Britten's light and teasing Simple Symphony Op 4, written when the composer was barely into his twenties, and based on some of the piano compositions of his youth. Britten was rather dismissive of the work, calling it (in a letter to Welsh composer Grace Williams) a 'school suite for strings', but it clearly points the way forward to Britten's remarkable career. Nicely poised playing from Vass's chamber orchestra here, especially in the 'Sentimental Sarabande', the emotional heart of this piece. The sound carried well despite a large and lofty church -- it's a venue used for recording by, amongst others, Naxos.

Ruth Peel, Rachel Nichols, Cecilia McDowall and George Vass with the Finchley Choral Society and Orchestra Nova in the church of St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London on 15 November 2003. Photo: Keith Bramich
Ruth Peel, Rachel Nichols, Cecilia McDowall and George Vass with the Finchley Choral Society and Orchestra Nova in the church of St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London on 15 November 2003. Photo: Keith Bramich

The Finchley Choral Society was founded in 1903 with a simple brief -- to provide opportunities for local people to study and practice music, and to provide concerts in the Finchley area for the local community. One hundred years later, it's still providing these opportunities and concerts, and the choir has celebrated its centenary with three special events -- a summer concert at St John's Smith Square, this evening's centenary performance and a year-long connection with Cecilia McDowall as Composer in Association. The fruits of this association are a special commission from McDowall for this new Magnificat, given its first performance here.

Cecilia McDowall. Photo: Patricia Dilkes
Cecilia McDowall. Photo: Patricia Dilkes

The opening 'Magnificat' section, for chorus, began solemnly with orchestra alone and a bare and open feeling. The choir entered in unison, moving slowly towards harmony and chromaticism, and ending with a wonderfully fruity soft final chord. Next came the playful and lively 'Ecce enim ex hoc beatam' ('For behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed'), sung by soprano Rachel Nicholls (bright clean voice -- very successful) in counterpoint with winds and strings. 'Quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est' ('For he that is mighty hath magnified me') was a slow choral section, with a kind of 'lapping' oboe punctuation at the start (later taken up by the women in the choir). The men echoed the women, making for a complex dovetailed sound with shifting tonality and a surprise ending -- the final high shimmering chord constructed from string harmonics leaves some mysticism in the air. Mezzo-soprano Ruth Peel, with a rich, dignified and slightly husky voice, sang the slow and reflective yet more dramatic 'Et misericordia'.

Acknowledgement for Cecilia McDowall at the first performance of her new Magnificat. Left to right: Ruth Peel, Rachel Nichols, Cecilia McDowall and George Vass, with members of the choir and orchestra behind. Photo: Keith Bramich
Acknowledgement for Cecilia McDowall at the first performance of her new Magnificat. Left to right: Ruth Peel, Rachel Nichols, Cecilia McDowall and George Vass, with members of the choir and orchestra behind. Photo: Keith Bramich

McDowall set 'Fecit potentiam' -- God's show of strength, scattering the proud in the imagination of their hearts, as a soprano mezzo duet. Nicholls and Peel blend well in this dramatic setting, based on a four note motif, sometimes rising, sometimes falling. The music climaxed on the word 'superbos' (the proud) and there's a kind of osmotic dispersal for the scattering ('dispersit'), until (in the only segue in this six movement work), the choir burst in with 'Deposuit potentes' for a grand and rousing finale, active music describing the works of God and putting things to right, world without end, Amen. Somehow I felt the closing pages of this glorious last movement needed a little extra something from the choir -- more joy, more love, more commitment, maybe, and certainly more volume (although as a large choir with a small chamber orchestra there were some obvious balance constraints). An intriguing first hearing of a new work, though, which, considering McDowall's popularity, will surely be performed again.

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Copyright © 17 November 2003 Keith Bramich, London UK

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